Crab Nebula

This mosaic image of the Crab Nebula, taken by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, is a six-light-year-wide expanding remnant of a star's supernova explosion. Features of this nebula and other astrophysical phenomena are being studied at MIT's Plasma Science and Fusion Center.

NASA / ESA / J. Hester (Arizona State University)

Chikang Li brings the Crab Nebula to the lab

PSFC researcher figures out the kink in the Crab

Paul Rivenberg  |  PSFC

Senior research scientist Chikang Li wants to experiment with the stars. Intrigued by a curious “kink” phenomenon observed in the Crab Nebula, he has been looking for answers. Images from the Chandra X-ray observatory show that a jet of plasma pouring straight out from the neutron star at the center of the nebula appears to change direction every few years, without changing its structure. Why? Scientists have hypothesized that magnetic fields with the right properties could explain this behavior, but Li wanted proof.

“How do you design an experiment on Earth to explain mysteries that are happening 6500 light years away, and stretching over thirteen light years of space?” he asks. “Traditional astrophysics is based on observation. Typically after you make an observation, you build a theoretical model, you do some numerical simulations. But that’s it. How can you go there and measure anything? How can you do an experiment to test this model? ”

Li has been part of MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) since becoming a graduate student in 1987. As a co-founder and associate head of the PSFC’s High-Energy-Density Physics (HEDP) Division, Li has collaborated regularly with the National Ignition Facility (NIF) and the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) on inertial confinement fusion and laboratory-astrophysical experiments. He decided to see if he could also use the OMEGA laser to mimic the conditions in the crab nebula, and prove the hypothesis that magnetic fields were responsible for the “kink in the Crab”.

Instead of training OMEGA’s multiple laser beams on a single pellet of hydrogen fuel, as he would for a fusion experiment, Li bounced lasers off two 3 x 3 mm foils hinged together at a 60-degree angle. Using two laser beams to heat each side, he generated plasma bubbles, or plumes. Li knew that because they are very dense and hot, these plumes would immediately expand, colliding in the middle plane between the two foils to form a jet.

Li notes that even though laboratory-generated jets and astrophysical jets have very different size scales, the fundamental physics can be the same because critical dimensionless parameters are similar. As a result, they share enough physical properties to allow Li to scale his laboratory experiments, as one would do from a wind tunnel to an airplane, to conditions in the Crab Nebula

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Side-by-side images of the jet from the Crab Nebula show its directional change between November 5, 2008 (left) and May 11, 2001.
Image credit: NASA / CXC / SAO

 

While the kink in the nebula jet occurs over a period of a few years, the laboratory experiment creates a jet in one nanosecond (billionth of a second), which then propagates for five to six nanoseconds.  Li laughs as he considers the speed of the experiments. “You have to generate that, diagnose that, characterize that, quantify that in this period of time!”

To measure the magnetic fields generated by the experiment Li used a monoenergetic proton radiography (MPR) diagnostic invented by his division in 2005, allowing him, through the deflection of the protons, to make a radiograph of the fields. With the quantitative measurements in hand, he has been able to prove that the nebula jet behavior is governed by weak magnetic fields along the jet, which keep its structure largely straight, and other magnetic fields circling around the jet, which create the instability responsible for the directional change. The results have been published in Nature Communications.

HEDP division head Richard Petrasso noted the importance of Li’s work.

“Through his understanding of instabilities and his development of the MPR diagnostic to map transient magnetic fields in the laboratory, Chikang has been able to explore and explicate, for the first time, such puzzling phenomena as the jetting in the Crab Nebula.” 

Li, and graduate students working under his supervision, are now in the process of extending this methodology to a range of other astrophysical phenomena, such as the turbulent generation and amplification of magnetic fields, and the observation of collisionless shocks and their associated magnetic fields.

With the ability to create measurable astrophysical conditions on earth using the NIF and OMEGA lasers, the sky’s the limit.

Topics: Plasma science, Lab astrophysics (LDX), Chikang Li